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Rantz: Seattle Ethics Commission doesn’t track complaints, making oversight difficult

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Seattle has either the most ethical city council or the most lenient ethics director. Unfortunately, the commission is maintained in a way that renders it nearly impossible to review easily. It turns out, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) doesn’t keep track of complaints.

Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant was recently outed as offering undue influence to the dues-paying political group Socialist Alternative. They help Sawant determine her vote, and even weigh in on staffing decisions for her office. Some aren’t constituents and the only way you can have that influence is if you pay to join the club. Consequently, Sawant recently faced an ethics complaint from one of her political opponents, Logan Bowers.

Wayne Barnett, the executive director of the SEEC, found no violation of the city’s ethics codes. Barnett doesn’t seem to ever find ethics violations in a city that recently had to settle for violating the state’s open-meetings law.

This got me wondering: what’s the rate that Barnett actually finds people guilty of violating city ethics codes? It’s not easily possible to discover.

KTTH put in a public records request for the number of total complaints filed in 2018. The city explained that they had no responsive records for that request. I originally thought it an error and asked Barnett to advise. His response? They don’t keep that data.

“We don’t track those numbers, Jason,” Barnett told me over email. “In my experience, tracking numbers of complaints isn’t very instructive. It would both overstate our workload – we get about a complaint a month from Mr. Tsimerman (usually delivered at the Commission’s public meeting, which is why I am sharing this example) – and understate it (we hear lots of things, some of which we follow up and some of which gets resolved in ways other than with a Commission penalty, such as with an employee separating from the city).”

Alex Tsimerman is a local activist and nuisance who shows up to meetings to call people Nazis.

I pressed Barnett, telling him I didn’t agree with his position. Who is he to tell me or anyone what is instructive to us? It’s not like it’s difficult to track and we could, presumably, request every complaint filed and manually go over the details. But why make it so onerous to review?

In 2018, Barnett found just one instance of an ethics violation after a complaint. Just one. But one out of how many complaints? If it’s one guilty finding out of eight complaints, well, that might make sense. If it’s one out of 2,000, then it suggests we could have a number of frivolous complaints filed or folks who don’t really even understand the ethics policy. But it also could suggest Barnett doesn’t like finding people guilty of violating city ethics codes.

There are many implications — but we can’t really provide easy oversight on his office if we don’t get the full numbers to explore first. It could be a big nothing-burger. Or a major story.

“I don’t agree that the full number offers a lot of implications, Jason,” Barnett explained. “We pursue complaints that have merit and we don’t pursue ones that don’t. If people believe I’m dismissing complaints that should move forward, they can appeal my dismissal to the full Commission. That happens occasionally, and in almost all of those cases my dismissal in the last 15 years my dismissal has been upheld. Does the fact that we’ve dismissed all of the complaints filed with us by our most prolific complainant make us ineffective? I can’t imagine that’s true, although the numbers would, in your 1/X analysis, look bad for us.”

Indeed, they would or could look bad. But it shouldn’t be up to Barnett to decide what data we should have access to, in order to come up with our own conclusions. Barnett should be the last one to decide since he would be the very person we’re judging.

“And I want to underscore that not every valid complaint that comes to our office gets resolved with a fine,” he said. “Last February, a former employee came to us with a complaint that SPU was overbilling customers. That complaint ultimately led to close to a million dollars in billing adjustments by the utility. That person never filed a formal complaint.”

To me, this is bad optics, especially since a simple Excel sheet could make this process easier. Perhaps a review of everything he does would show him to be a diligent, hard-working, and fair arbiter of the code. Unfortunately, he doesn’t make it easy for us to figure that out. I know he doesn’t think it’s instructive, but, perhaps he should let the media decide?

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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